Aesthetics: Visual Aesthetics

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An article on the application of visual aesthetics to religion might be expected to concentrate on paintings and sculpture with religious subject matter as well as on architecture designed for religious functions. Such an article, however, would duplicate a monograph on sacred art. The following discussion undertakes in a more general way to describe some basic perceptual and cognitive aspects of visual imagery and to examine their effects on religious art. Particularly relevant to this discussion are forms of art and kinds of religion not bound to traditional legendary subject matter.

Visual imagery defines the things and events of the world by their perceptual appearance. To be sure, perceptual characteristics are supplemented by all kinds of knowledge, but since such knowledge conveys only indirect information, it is less immediately effective. Images act primarily not by what one knows but by what strikes the eyes. They speak through the properties of shape, color, space, and sometimes motion. These properties are the carriers of visual dynamics, directed forces whose configurations act as symbolical equivalents of the dynamics that determine one's own mental and physical existence. The expressiveness of pure form enables nonrepresentational art such as architecture and "abstract" painting or sculpture to make effective statements about human experience.

Religious Art and Reality

When put at the service of religion, art favors embodiment; that is, it favors objects of worship taking the shapes of physical existence, such as human figures, animals and trees, buildings and mountains, water and light. Not all visual images meet the conditions of art, but for reasons to be discussed later it is all but essential for religious purposes that they do so. Some of the conditions to which works of art are subject may create difficulties for their application toward religious ends. One such condition is that images, to be effective, must adhere to what may be called a unitary reality status: they must share a common universe of discourse, whether physical or metaphysical. As long as superhuman powers are represented as differing from terrestrial life only by degree, there is no problem. The Homeric gods, for example, are stronger and more beautiful than mortals and are exempt from the laws of nature, but otherwise interact with mortals at the same level. Therefore the nature and activity of these gods pose no difficulties for the painter. The same is true for biblical subjects. Regardless of how artist and viewer conceive the ontological status of God, Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel can show the creator only as a human figure, albeit one endowed with superhuman powers.

Even invisibility is no obstacle to the painter as long as it is represented as a phenomenon of the visible world; but if a supernatural power were to be shown as beyond the sphere of visibility, namely as purely spiritual, the painter could solve the task only by shifting the entire theme to the spiritual realm, the qualities of which would be represented symbolically. If, for example, the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit were depicted in the manner of the Italian futurists by stylized flames descending on a group of dark abstract shapes, this visually coherent image could work very well as a symbolical representation of an entirely spiritual event. A painter would be unable, however, to show the interaction of a spiritual, immaterial power with a material event. Marc Chagall's Bible illustrations may be cited as an example of this limitation. Meyer Schapiro observes in his Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York, 1978): "Chagall feels awe before the divinity. How can he render God, who has forbidden all images? He has given the answer in [one of his illustrations] the Creation of Man. God's name is inscribed here in Hebrew letters in a luminous circle in the dark sky" (p. 130). Here the qualitative difference between the immaterial and the material would seem to be indicated by the insertion of a diagrammatic sign, which can be understood intellectually but does not express visually the nature of the divine. This inherent break in aesthetic expression is circumvented in certain images created in medieval Europe and the Far East, where heaven, earth, and underworld are represented as separate entities within a continuous picture. Interaction is sacrificed, but the visual concreteness of each realm is safeguarded.

One can make a similar point by stating that visual imagery does not readily accommodate a worldview that suffers from the modern scission between what is considered accepted knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, and what is merely believed on the basis of what was held to be true in the past. In a work of art, everything is equally true, and all truth is known by one and the same means of visual evidence. The angel of the Annunciation is as real as the Virgin, and when, in a painting by Tintoretto, Christ walks on the waters of the Sea of Gennesaret, the walk is as real as the water and the boat. As far as aesthetic reality is concerned, no faith is needed where there is the certainty of sight. At the same time no picture offers scientific proof for the truth of anything it shows. A painted tree is no more real than a winged dragon. As a work of art, a painting or sculpture persuades only by the power of its visual presence. Thus it can satisfy a viewer who accepts the story as literal truth and equally one who considers it purely symbolical, but it balks at combining both views in the same image. Given its perceptual nature, visual art favors a conception of religious experience emerging from what is accepted as factually true.

Kinds of Aesthetic Truth

Works of art, then, call for the unitary reality status of everything they show and refer to. That reality status, however, is not always the same. One can distinguish the following kinds.


What is the ontological status of an icon that is worshiped, offered gifts and sacrifices, asked for help or intercession? For believers it is clearly treated as a physically existent power residing in their world. At the same time, the admission of an image to the world of the living is rarely the result of an illusion. Typically, believers are not deceived about the reality status of the icon's body. They know that they are in the presence of an object of wood, stone, or painted canvas. A naive psychology would see here a puzzling contradiction. What counts, however, is not the biological reality of the iconic entity but the power attributed to it. As the carrier of such power, the icon is taken neither for a living creature nor for a mere representation of something active elsewhere in time and space. It is an immediately present source of active energy.


When an Egyptian sculptor made a portrait of Queen Nefertiti, or when Diego Velázquez depicted the surrender of the Dutch city of Breda to the Spanish conqueror in 1625, the artist was convinced that he was offering a likeness of someone who was actually living or had lived, or of something that actually had taken place. This conviction prevails regardless of how much or little an artist knows about the actual appearance of his or her subject. Religious images can be intended as such portraits or chronicles, that is, as representations at the same level of truthfulness as historical documentation or scientific illustration; but there is no telling by mere inspection in which cases this is in fact the artist's attitude. Certainly it would be a mistake to assume that in religious imagery the more realistic representations are necessarily the more "literally" intended ones or that, vice versa, the more stylized and abstract images are meant to be more remote from actual fact. An artist of the high Renaissance, for instance, may have depicted the repentant Mary Magdalene very realistically for the purpose of sensuous enjoyment, caring very little about the truth of the story the work was telling; whereas certain more abstract styles, which today look remote from nature, may have seemed quite lifelike to their originators and may have been inspired by a deep belief in the truthfulness of their images.


It is, however, in the nature of artistic perception that an image is seen not simply as an individual object, person, or happening, but as the representative of a whole class of things, the significance of which goes beyond that of the individual. One may know the name of a gentleman portrayed by Rembrandt, but beyond the image of the individual is seen in the painting an expression of melancholy and resignation, vigilance and thought. In fact, one of the principal virtues of a great artist is the ability to handle shapes and colors in such a way that universal validity imposes itself through the individual instance. This symbolic quality of images is entirely compatible with the belief in their historical truth. When Dante Alighieri, in his letter to Can Grande della Scala, explains that a biblical story, such as that of the departure of the children of Israel, can be understood "in more senses than one," he distinguishes the literal from the allegorical meanings. The individual story may or may not be intended or understood as historical truth. When such truth is excluded, the human validity of the presentation may be nevertheless entirely preserved. The viewer enters the aesthetic category of fiction.

Religious Subject Matter

In fiction the historical truth of the subject matter is commonly considered irrelevant, or even an obstacle to the creative freedom of the artist. Concerning religious art there is the question of whether such an attitude toward the subject matter is acceptable. For example, can an artist who is not a believer create a convincing image? (The term believer may be defined for the moment in the limited sense of someone convinced of the historical truth of the depicted facts.) A telling example of an enterprise that has had considerable religious and artistic success but has also stirred up much protest is that of the Church of Nôtre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce at Assy, France, commissioned by the Dominican fathers during the early 1940s. The story of the church, to which William S. Rubin has devoted an extensive monograph (Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy, New York, 1961), is complex. It involves the more general issue of popular aversion to modern art, but also the fact that prestigious painters and sculptors, known to be atheists, communists, or religious Jews, were called upon to design a mosaic for the facade, a tapestry for the apse, a crucifix, and other decorations. None of the artists testified to any particular difficulty with the religious subject matter, nor did they feel that the task differed in principle from the secular work to which they were accustomed. It seems safe to assume that the religious subject matter to which the artists committed themselves, the Apocalypse, the Crucifixion, the Virgin of the litany, and so forth, exerted upon them the evocative power that inheres in any great subject, whatever its origin. The impact of the universally human dimensions of the subjects upon the artists may account for the more specifically religious effectiveness of their contributions.

In a more general sense this episode raises the question of whether visual images can ever be called religious when they lack the traditional subject matter of any particular creed. One thinks immediately of representations of nature that are intended to testify to the existence and qualities of its creator. When Augustine in his Confessions (10.6) inquires about the nature of God, he reports:

I asked the earth; and it answered, "I am not he"; and whatsoever are therein made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the creeping things that lived, and they replied, "We are not thy God, seek higher than we." I asked the breezy air, and the universal air with its inhabitants answered, "Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God." I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars: "Neither," say they, "are we the God whom thou seekest." And I answered unto all these things which stand about the door of my flesh, "Ye have told me concerning my God, that ye are not he; tell me something about him." And with a loud voice they exclaimed, "He has made us." My questioning was my observing of them; and their beauty was their reply.

The things of nature give their answer to Augustine's question through their "beauty" (species). When one views a painted landscape by Altdorfer or Rubens or Sesshū, one may note such qualities as power, inexhaustible abundance, variety, order, ingenuity, and mystery. The greater the artist, the more compellingly does he or she present the objects of nature as embodiments of these virtues. What the artist cannot do, however, is give them the voice by which Augustine heard them answer: "He made us." A landscape cannot do in a painting what it does in Augustine's verbal invocation; visually, cause and effect can be shown only as acting within the realm of the forces of nature themselves, as when in a romantic landscape a cataract smashes against boulders or when a blacksmith is seen striking the glowing iron. To be sure, images can be used superbly to illustrate the belief in a creator, as Augustine does with his enumeration of the things of nature, but the belief must be brought to the images as an interpretation; it is not pronounced by the images themselves.

In 1959 the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich was invited to lecture on the topic "Art and Religion" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Significantly, he changed the title of his lecture to "Art and Ultimate Reality," arguing that the quest for ultimate reality was an indispensable aspect of religion and also the aim of all true art. He proceeded to describe five types of stylistic elements that he considered expressive of ultimate realitya survey suggesting the generalization that any artistic attitude whatever can meet the criterion, provided the work attains the depth that goes with aesthetic excellence. In the discussion following his lecture Tillich was willing to conclude that "ultimate reality appears in what is usually called secular painting, and the difference of what is usually called religious painting is real only insofar as so-called religious painting deals with the traditional subject matters which have appeared in the different religious traditions" (Cross Currents, 1960).

Even when such a thesis is accepted in a general way, it seems evident that certain kinds of secular subjects are more congenial to common forms of the religious attitude than others. Thus images of nature point more readily to supernatural powers beyond the objects of physical appearance than do images of the works of man. More generic views do better as religious images than those of specific things or episodes. Stylized presentations can more readily transcend individuality on the way to ultimate reality than realistic ones, and this makes a Byzantine mosaic look more religious than a naturalistic photograph.

The extreme case is that of nonfigurative art, where abstraction reaches a maximum. The predicament of abstract art, however, has been, from the beginning, that although it may claim, as the painter Piet Mondrian did, that it represents ultimate reality more directly than other kinds of art, its relation to concrete experience becomes so tenuous that it risks proclaiming everything and nothing. For example, Fernand Léger, in 1952, decorated the side walls of the United Nations Assembly Hall in New York with large abstractions; his two gigantic tentacled clusters might well convey the sense of consolidated forces, but this very generic meaning can be channeled into a more specific application only with the help of the architectural setting and its known significance.

The limitations of nonfigurative imagery are reinforced when the absence of narrative subject matter is combined with an ascetic parsimony of form. The grids of the late work of Mondrian were threatened by a discrepancy between what was intended and what was achieved. When the form is even more severely reduced while the suggested subject becomes more specific. An extreme case is that of the fourteen Stations of the Cross painted around 1960 by the American artist Barnett Newman. These paintings, limited essentially to one or two vertical stripes on a plain background, tend to transcend the boundary between the pictorial and the diagrammatica distinction of considerable relevance for the problems of religious imagery. A diagram is a visual symbol of an idea or set of facts. It often reflects some essential property of its subject; but although it can evoke powerful emotions in the vieweras when someone contemplates a chart depicting the increase of nuclear warheadsit does not create these experiences through its own formal expression. It merely conveys information. Something similar is true for traditional signs, such as the national flag, the cross, or the star of David. They, too, can release powerful responses, which are based on empirical association, not on the visual expression inherent in the image.

Aesthetic and Religious Experience

The distinction between mere factual information, as given for example in scientific illustrations, and aesthetic expression points at the same time to one of two fundamental similarities between aesthetic and religious experience. It is generally acknowledged that for a religious person it does not suffice to accept certain facts, such as the existence of God, but that the forces asserted to exist must be sensed as reverberating in the believer's own mind, so that when, for example, in the Book of Job, the Lord answers out of the whirlwind, the reader of the Bible is to be overcome by the greatness of the creation. This heightening of information into religious experience, however, is strongly aided by the poetry of the biblical language. It does not differ in principle from what distinguishes secular aesthetic experience from the mere conveyance of factual knowledge. One may learn all there is to learn about Picasso's response to the Spanish Civil War in his painting Guernica and yet never experience the painting as a work of art, unless the forces of suffering, brutality, resistance, and hope come alive in the viewer's own consciousness. For this reason the purpose of religious art can be greatly enhanced when the images are of high artistic quality and thereby carry intense expression.

But is there really no difference between aesthetic and religious experience? Is it not essential for religiosity that experiencing the nature of the world into which one is born leads to a corresponding conduct of worship, of living in conformity with the demands revealed by that experience? In comparison, aesthetic contemplation may seem to be mere passive reception. Such a view of aesthetic behavior, however, is too narrow. First of all, the very fact of artistic creation is the artist's way of placing his or her most important behavior, a life's work, actively into the context of the world he or she experiences. The art historian Kurt Badt, recalling Ruskin and Nietzsche, has defined the activity of the artist as "Feiern durch Rühmung," that is, as celebration through praise (Kunsthistorische Versuche, Cologne, 1968). Such a definition does not turn art into religion, but it highlights the affinity of the two.

In an even broader sense, no reception of a work of art is complete unless the viewer feels impelled to live up to the intensity, purity, and wisdom of outlook reflected in it. This demand to emulate the nobility of the work of art by one's own attitude toward the world was strikingly expressed by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke when he celebrated the beautiful forms of an Archaic marble torso of Apollo. He followed his description abruptly with the admonition "Du musst dein Leben ändern" ("You must change your life").

See Also

Architecture; Art and Religion; Human Body; Iconography.


On the religious attitude of artists see, for example, Edgar Wind's article "Traditional Religion and Modern Art: Rouault and Matisse" in his The Eloquence of Symbols (Oxford, 1983). Vincent van Gogh in an often-cited letter of December 1889 to Émile Bernard discusses the use of religious subject matter, a topic interpreted in its broader context by Meyer Schapiro in a paper "On a Painting of van Gogh," contained in his Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York, 1978), pp. 8799. Explicit references to "ultimate reality" occur in the writings of Piet Mondrian found in Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art (New York, 1945).

For the more general aspects of visual symbolism see, for example, Margaret Miles's "Vision: The Eye of the Body and the Eye of the Mind in St. Augustine's De Trinitate and Confessions, " Journal of Religion 63 (April 1983): 125142. I have also approached these issues in Visual Thinking (Berkeley, 1969), the chapters on "Art and Thought" and on "Models for Theory"; the essay "The Robin and the Saint," in Toward a Psychology of Art (Berkeley, 1966); and the chapter "Symbols through Dynamics," in The Dynamics of Architectural Form (Berkeley, 1977).

Rudolf Arnheim (1987)